I have Multiple Sclerosis, but it doesn’t have me. This is not a story about MS, though. It’s a story about how my motorcycle gave me my life back.
MS slowly took my ability to ride away. It eats away at your strength and balance, among other things. As those things erode, confidence becomes hard to maintain. Eventually, afraid of what might happen, I just hung my helmet up.
Riding well has always been a point of pride for me—racing, back road scratching, and riding long distances. I fell in love with road racing at Daytona as a kid in the 70s. Just like so many others, being taken for a ride on the back of my Dad’s bike—a Z1 900 Kawasaki—as a little fellow set the hook for a lifetime.
The speed and the sound still live on in my head from 1975. I was pretty sure I now knew what it felt like to be an astronaut launched into space.
Hanging Up the Helmet
Riding played a bigger role in my life than I even knew. Not doing it anymore left a giant hole. That hole was hard to quantify, because it has never been there before. There has never been another time in my life when I didn’t ride.
I knew, rationally, the safest thing to do was to hang my helmet up, and let it go. What I didn’t know was what the consequences of that would be.
If you are a motorcyclist, this is the equivalent of preaching to the choir. There is so much wrapped up in this sport it is hard to even know where to start.
The mental aspect, for me, is priceless, and without peer. Once the crankshaft is spinning, other things that were occupying my thoughts move to the back seat. My focus becomes—as I think it must—riding the machine. Simultaneous juggling of thought processes for all the things necessary to ride leaves little bandwidth for much else.
Situational awareness. Noting the various systems on the bike for proper operation. Constant effort at improving riding skill. The list goes on, and it is long. Proficient riding is as much a mental exercise as it is anything else.
For me, someone who has never been without this, the only way I know to describe its loss is that it is like the electricity in your house. Day in, day out, it gets no thought. Right up until it isn’t there anymore. At that point, it has your undivided attention.
I did my best to try and sub in other things to try to stop thinking about it so much. Really focusing hard on every form of motorcycle road racing I could find, memorizing minutiae about teams and riders. Deep study of the evolution of many different kinds of street bike engines, and the engineering leaps they took over the decades in design, and metallurgy. Learning as much as I could about some really obscure machines.
It didn’t work. I was already fighting a losing battle with depression. Trying to make peace with the idea that I just couldn’t ride anymore really tied the bow on that.
That’s when my motorcycle gave me my life back.
How My Motorcycle Brought Me Back
I’ve been a motorcycle mechanic my whole life. For many of the same reasons I stopped riding, I stopped pulling wrenches for my living as well. But even though I wasn’t riding it, I couldn’t stomach the idea of allowing the machine to just go to rot.
I was busy flushing brake hydraulic fluid when it hit: I am not giving this up without a fight!
That day I started a physical therapy routine to get back some of what I lost. Exercise, combined with some very deliberate routines. Left foot day. Today I will concentrate on knowing exactly where my left foot is. Tomorrow, right foot day. The day after, both feet. Repeat as necessary.
I started working to learn the new way my brain processes signals from my inner ears, and eyes with different balance exercises. Each day, I looked at the motorcycle, a Triumph Sprint 1050. It beckoned me. My day was coming.
Getting Back on the Bike
It took about six months for me to build up the courage. I started it, pushed it off the center stand, and sat on the bike, feet on the ground. I watched the temperature gauge climb as it warmed up and settled into idle.
It was an exciting, and simultaneously nerve wracking, moment. It had been a long time. Am I really ready for this? One way to find out. I clicked it into first, went to the end of the driveway, and back. I was grinning like an idiot. The adventure begins anew.
Soon after, I suited up and ventured out into my neighborhood, very slowly. I’m sure my neighbors wondered what I was doing, riding around like a prowler. What I was doing was building confidence. I had the piece that fit that big hole.
I then left the neighborhood, and started to view the bike the way I used to—as the preferred mode of transportation. Every time I took it out, the once natural ways of operating it started to return, versus needing to think through everything I did. Shifting, counter steering, braking, looking ahead to where you are going. It felt like a one man MSF course.
With a Little Help from My Friends
I’m very fortunate to have a friend who inspires me to ride. His name is Brandon Jackson. Brandon is a smart and capable man, the type that makes me look better by association. He is also an accomplished rider, someone who has taken his rider training seriously, understanding that proficiency not only makes it more fun, it also makes it safer.
Leaving ego and heroics out of back road riding has really encouraged me to concentrate on riding better, and to remember just how fun it is. Riding wheelies or doing burnouts to impress onlookers requires nothing more than the ability to operate a twistgrip! Like boxing, proficient riding is a sweet science.
Brandon has been understanding and patient with me as I relearn getting toward the edges of the tires again. Keeping an eye on me, running relatively slow, and talking me through the things I kept screwing up. Mostly, he leads by example. I’m lucky to know him, and grateful. We all need people like this in our lives.
The real story here is how powerful the motivation from this sport was. Riding a motorcycle, as it turns out, meant a lot more to me than I thought it did. Trying to explain this to folks who don’t ride is difficult, at best.
Why is it so important? Being able to shut out all the “noise” that accompanies modern life, and having clear headed focus only for the task at hand, are things that I’m not sure I could achieve any other way.
Not that I’d want to. Too many good roads lie ahead.